Skip to main content

Full text of "The Birth of the Internet"

See other formats

Model A: The BBN teans poses with the rst message processor: Team 
leader Heart is in the center, with tie. 
The Birth of 
the Internet 
Technology: The builders of the Net talk 
about how they changed the world 
N ]'HE. SUMMER OF 1:)15). NOT 
was at Woodstock, In laboratories on 
either side of the continent, a small 
group of computer scientists were qui- 
etly changing the future of communica- 
tions. Their goal: to build a computer net- 
work that would enable researchers around 
the count to share ideas. That network 
beeroe the foundaOon of the Interact. the 
vast intemation computer network that 
today has become one pm buford, one 
pm popd obsession. But its bih re- 
quired a leap of the manation. Instead of 
seeg computers as mt, ploddg num- 
'ber-cmnchers, they had to be ewed as 
ble tls that cod t to each other. 
er that pa s, the rest was just 
doing the cations. 
That sounds deceptively easy today. in 
tMs time of modems that spit out whole 
to-books at what can seem like the speed 
't. But it took a lbw visionabes, along 
 .... teams of engineers d proammers, 
to bhng the Net to Me. Next month in Bos- 
ton. many of those pioneers 
plan to gnther thr a reunmn 
sponsored by Bolt Beranek and 
Newman, Inc. (BBN). an m- 
portant contractor on the 1.969 
project. For scientists who have 
spent their careers looking 
ahead, it's a rare chance to re- 
flect on the past. "It's a bit like 
climbing a mountain," says Vint 
Cerf, then a UCLA graduate student and 
now president of the nonprofit Internet So- 
ciety and a senior vice president at MCI, 
"You don't know how far you've come until 
you stop and look back." 
The project was called ^a,^E'r, aer 
the agency that paid for it--AltPA, the De- 
partment of Defense's Advanced Itesearch 
Project Agency. The scientists "tackled the 
job with a passion, the passion of getting 
something important done." says author 
Katie Hafner, who is writing a book on the 
^m,^N:'r, "The technical foundations they 
built in 1,969 are still in place today," At the 
time, there was no standard computer op- 
erating system: machines generally could 
not communicate with each other. The re- 
suit: a technological Tower of Babel. Even 
with machines that were compatible, the 
best way to get data from one to another 
usually was to physically carry magnetic 
tapes or punched cards and insert them into 
the other machine. 
Such clumsiness frustrated some of 
the most talented computer scientists, 
including J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Tay- 
lor, both o[' whom served stints running 
ABPA's computer research program in the 
early and mid-1960s. Like colleagues scat- 
toted around the nation. they were thinking 
of \rays to make computers more efficient 
by connectin them in networks. And they 
------------------------------<page break>-----------------------------
had access to the mother's milk of science: 
grant money. Taylor recalls walking into 
the AllPA director's office in February 
1966 and asking ibr money. "The conversa- 
tion lasted about 15 or 20 minutes." he says. 
"He immediately liked the idea and took a 
million dollars out of some ABPA project-- 
I never did know which one-to get me 
started." In 1968, Licklider and Taylor pub- 
[ished a particularly prescient paper sug- 
gesting that computers could serve as com- 
munications devices. They pushed ti0r an 
experimental network, one that would cre- 
ate new communities of' sciem ists separat- 
ed by geography but united by technology. 
The initial plan was to link Ibm' sites: 
Ploneer: Postel, Crocker and 
Cerf use zucchini, tin cans 
and drawings to represent 
the primitive Net they helped 
create. (And you thought 
computer jocks had no humor!) 
Engelbart. top. u'ith a 
modern mouse: his lab t Stll 
was the site o}'an early 'iodc.' 
Heart. above. ut BBNi 
UCLA, the University of Cal. itbrnia, Santa 
Barbara. the Stanford Research Institute 
and the University of Utah. The first 
"node," as the network sites are called, was 
at UCLA. Graduate students Cerf. Steve 
Crocker and .Ion Postel. among others, 
were enlisted to build hardware and soft- 
ware that would hook up to devices BBN 
xvas building for each site. These devices 
were called IMPs, tbr Interface Message 
Processors, and their job was to route data 
between nodes. making sure the intbrma- 
lion got to the right destination. 
UCL:\'s node was set up in September 
and. hy working round the clock, the scien- 
tists were ready for the first official demon- 
stration on Nov. 21. Around 
midday, Crocker says. a hf- 
dozen scientists gathered at 
UCL,Ys Boelter Hall. home of 
the computer-science depart- 
ment. and watched as one com- 
puter hooked up with ano:her 
hundreds of miles away at 
Doug Engelbart's lab at the 
Stanford Research Institute. It 
was a historic event, but the 
only visual record is in the 
memories of those who were 
there. "There wasn't a photog- 
rapher present," says Crocker. 
"and it didn't occur to us that 
we should have one." 
What did the first message 
say? What was the equivalent of 
"Mr. Watson, come here. I want 
you"? Hardly anyone remem- 
bers, "The connection worked," 
says Crocker. "That was all that 
More sites: By 1971 there 
were nearly two dozen sites, in- 
cluding machines at MIT and 
Harvard. Three years later 
there were t32 and, bv 1,981. 
more than 200. Lawrence Bob- 
errs, who succeeded Taylor at 
AltPA, is credited by many of 
his colleagues with being the 
true guiding tbrce behind the 
network's development. "As far 
as I am concerned. he is the star 
of the show." says Engelbart. 
who is himself a legend in the 
computer world tbr inventing 
(among other things) the mouse. 
One of lloberts's hurdles 
was getting resistant scientists 
around the country to cooper- 
ate. "I told all of the people who 
were getting computer money 
from ARPA ... that they were 
going to partic.ipate in this." 
Boberrs recalls. "They hated it. 
They had their own computers. 
their own thing... They wanted 
to keep it to themselves.,. But 
I encouraged them to do it because we had 
the money. I told them they had to do it." 
Within a year, says lloberts. "they loved 
it... They got much more sharing of infor- 
mation. They were writing papers together 
even in the first days." Taylor remembers 
that. early on, the network also began 
evoMng into more than just a scientif- 
ic tool. Their computers may have 
been very different in size and speed, but 
now they could all talk to each other. Elec- 
tronic mail caught on quickly. There were 
heated online political debates, especially 
over the Vietnam War. and intense conver- 
sations about Space War, one of the first 
computer games. 
------------------------------<page break>-----------------------------
'ilk i ! ' 
Bv the early 1970s other count/des want- 
ed t join in. That meant a new technical 
chlh.,,,e: 1-' to I,nk t network- 
the world. Cerf. then a pro/bsbr a Stal- 
rd University. and Robe Kn. who was 
,t .XllPA. developed a et of tcdmical 
tandards. called protoct)ls. that multiple 
networks cod use. TMt paved the way br 
the Intemet. Over the ne decade dozens 
of new networks were born, including the 
USENET nexvs goups, an electronic ibmm 
now used by ons 3f people ound the 
world to discuss evening om particle 
physics to Barney the dinosaur. 
.-ks personal computers beeme cheaper 
and easier to use in the late 1980s, anyone 
th a modem could get onne. By that time 
NSFN. a network established by the Na- 
tional Science Foundation, seed as the 
techc ba&bone of the Interact in this 
eount. aapas. its job complete. went 
out of eossion in 1990. 
'omrati sMt': TecMologicly, the 
Intemet is a urnverse away from ARPANET, 
but there's a nsp of puose. The 
founders "rely wted to shoe computer 
resources." says Hafner. "It was a ve 
demcratic spirit, The spirit in which the 
network was built you can still see in the 
network toda?" In cyberspace. where ev- 
e?'one's words look the same. national 
boundaries and social distinctions become 
less impoant, "I like the one-woddness 
that the Internet brings to people." 
'%'lr. now an executi'e with I)igital 
.qtipmenl Ctn'p., "the iktct that people can 
get more doseIv connected based on com- 
mon interests. mutual objectives. mutual 
need." Frank Heart. who worked on the 
-x,.,xt-7r at BBN. compares the experience 
to early atomic research. space exploration 
or cncng genetic codes. 
Sometimes Steve Crocker, now vice 
president at Trusted Information Systems, 
inc.. in Morn'land. watches in amazement 
a two guys hunch over computers linked 
by a cable m'ung across an aidlane aisle. 
'And you know the most likely brand name 
on those computers'? It's Nintendo. and the 
twt) guys are usually 10-year-old boys. The 
communication be}ween those two 
chines is even' bit as complicated-if not 
more so-than what we were envisioning 
25 years ago." 
fhspite their achievements. the net- 
work pioneers remain unknown out- 
ide the computer world. Often. Kahn 
sav. he will talk about the Internet with 
a new acquaintance who doesn't know his 
hisroD'. "ter I answer two or three 
questions, they alvays ask: 'What book 
did you read?'" But hn doesn't like 
to dwell on the past. "Those were ve' 
exciting days. but there are new frontiers 
:, every direction I can look these' days." 
qua2er centurn' later. the [ktut' still 
ooks bght, 
In This Game It's Hard 
to Root for Either Side 
Sports: A strike may abort a grand baseball season 
he could do worse than writing about 
sports. He'd have his tragedies (Jennifer 
Capriati. Tonya and Nancy, O. J. Simpson) 
and his comedies (George Foreman's ump- 
teenth comeback, Michael Jordan's second 
career). And now, with basebali's impend- 
ing players' strike, he'd examine both sides, 
measure their comparative villainy and re- 
peat one of his famous phrases: "A plague 
o' both your houses." 
The two houses of baseball met last week 
,.,., ,.. 
I"*'Broken Records 
aseball has been fun again this season, 
in part because so many of the game's 
records have been under sustained assault. 
A strike will end all that. Here's a look at 
what's at stake. 
in Nexv York and set what appears to be an 
irrevocable course toward basebali's eighth 
work stoppage in just 22 seasons. The play- 
ers rejected the owners' proposal to com- 
bine revenue-sharing with a salary cap, an 
artificial lid similar to ones in the Nation- 
al Basketball Association and the Natiof 
TRIPLE GROWN: Frank Thomas of the White Sex 
would be the first player since 1967 to lead his 
leaSue in averaBe, home runs and RBI 
FOR THE OWNERS: As a public servant, 
Rayitch earned a fine rep, Will that surAve 
his work for the belllgerant owners? 
UNION MAN: Fehr and 
the players have the 
Ionpst winnini streak 
in sports. Will It end over 
a salary cap? 
------------------------------<page break>-----------------------------